Collecting reliable and comprehensive statistics on the book and publishing sector is pivotal, and yet rather arduous for manifold reasons. On the one hand, a consistent collection of reliable data across time would allow to better understand the developments of this sector, its value and its broader contributions to the cultural and creative sector, as well as to societies as a whole. Furthermore, statistics are also essential for evidence-based policymaking and should allow to adequately measure the impact of policies and other endogenous and exogenous variables. On the other hand though, it has proven extremely challenging to develop a common and shared methodology to collect such data at European level, and to effectively utilize them for the benefits of the sector. While a number of organisations and public bodies collectively contribute to build a fuller picture of the European book and publishing sector, strikingly we still lack homogenous statistics about this sector and the different national markets. The FEP and its members have indeed often highlighted a number of discrepancies between their statistics and those published by national and European public bodies, like Eurostat. These discrepancies and their variability throughout the years is probably related to a number of reasons, from the underlying differences in the collection and analysis of data, to the differences in samples, the lack of commonly agreed definitions, and divergences in the objectives for the gathering of such data.
In a recent analysis commissioned by FEP to Eleonora Maria Mazzoli, researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, it also emerged that in numerous European countries there is a sheer lack of data about the book and publishing sector as a whole, which is often combined with an absence of structured and reliable data collection processes. Indeed, despite the national specificities of each market, the exercise shows that the increasing fragmentation of the sector is impeding a coordinated approach to statistics, while the growing global competition and the rising power of digital platforms, like Amazon, is amplifying the pre-existing lack of access to data, especially data on online sales and digital formats, like eBooks and audiobooks, which are still a limited but growing percentage of the book and publishing sector. On top of these challenges, numerous publishers from Eastern European countries are experiencing a growing mistrust around data, deriving from a fear of potential misuses of such information by commercial competitors and/or state agencies and national governments.
These developments call for further investigation, especially in the light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has severely hit and damaged the culture and creative sectors in the European Union, with negative consequences for the book and publishing sector as well. As highlighted in FEP’s recent report (FEP, 2021b), the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on this sector were significant, but also divergent, not only with wide differences between countries, but across several other domains within each country, such as trade channels, publishing sectors, players of different sizes, and types of books. In this context, the shift towards online sales that was accelerated during the pandemic favoured those players like Amazon that already had a solid presence on the internet, as well as, those who were agile and flexible enough to adapt, like numerous small and independent booksellers. To better understand though how these impacts will affect the sector as whole in the long term, we need to be able to have comparable, reliable and historical data across all distribution channels and book types, from print to digital. However, as previously argued, this goal is far from being achieved as the sector faces high discrepancies in access, reliability and transparency of data sources, combined with the absence of coordinated and structured processes especially when it comes to smaller European markets (see also Aldus, 2021).
Within this context, the much vaunted quest for data intelligence in the book and publishing sector (Harvey, 2015; Hidalgo, 2016) appears as a dream for small and independent publishers in fragmented markets, like Greece, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, even though there are examples of well-established publishing and private companies in some of the biggest European book and publishing markets, like UK, France, Italy and Germany, that are getting closer to transforming this mirage into reality. To create however a level playing field among different countries and organisations, it is paramount to equip publishers with the adequate skills, resources and policy frameworks, otherwise this gap will not be easily filled. Furthermore, even for those established and financially stable publishing associations, is becoming more and more difficult to respond to the challenges in a global and digitally convergent market, where data about customers and online sales on third-party platforms are kept under paywalls, and while the growing segment of digital formats like eBooks are increasingly dominated by Amazon and Apple (Campbell, 2016; Flood, 2016; Mosendz, 2014). Thus, alongside the necessity to develop shared and transparent data collection practices, it is paramount to ensure fair relationships between the different players in the sector, in order to avoid the concentration of such growing data power in the hands of few private corporations (Anderson, 2020), which in turn might exacerbate unfair competitive practices at the disadvantages of smaller and local market actors. As European policymakers discuss key regulatory proposals that could lead to a more transparent governance system for data and fairer and more open digital markets in the European Union (European Commission, 2020a, 2020b), it is therefore important to take into account the specificities of sectors like the book and publishing one, which are key pillars of our European societies and culture.
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